2014 Preview: Texas Rangers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. First up: The Texas Rangers.

The Big Question: Were the bold moves bold enough?

The past two offseasons seasons saw the division rival Angels make huge additions in Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols. Those moves didn’t work and, indeed, those moves are cited as part of the reason the Angels have fizzled. Too much star power, not enough depth, they’ve said. It takes more than the big moves to make a contender. So why should the Rangers’ big offseason moves — trading for Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo be any different?

Because they fit a heck of a lot better with the Rangers than those other guys fit with the Angels, that’s why. The Rangers needed on-base ability at the top of the lineup. They needed someone with pop from the left side who can take advantage of the short porch in right down in Arlington. Choo and Fielder supply that in spades. Indeed, Choo is one of baseball’s true on-base machines, and the fact that Jon Daniels and Ron Washington have committed to batting him leadoff is going to mean good things for the lineup. Getting Prince Fielder out of Detroit — and getting him in shape — will do wonders as well. It’ll be hard to find anyone the baseball punditry says will have a better bounceback year than Fielder.

Yes, the Rangers had to give up Ian Kinsler to snag Fielder, but havung Jurickson Profar move into a regular, everyday role at second base is a nice fallback option. If he plays to his potential, the Rangers could have another star on their hands. If he falters, at least his glove should be solid.

Unlike the Angels, the Rangers were not a team trying to patch over several holes with a couple of high-profile signings. They were a strong team who needed a push over the top after falling a couple games short for the AL West title the past two seasons. With Choo and Fielder they should get it.

What else is going on?

  • Injuries to the rotation are going to go a long way towards determining the Rangers’ fate.  Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Martin Perez make a nice 1-2-3, but Harrison’s early-spring back issues are worth watching and not having Derek Holland around for the first half of the season due to knee surgery is a big problem. If Harrison is OK and Holland can step in when he’s healthy, the rotation should be OK. If both of those guys are gimpy much of the year Ron Washington is going to lean heavily on Alexi Ogando, Nick Tepesch and Tommy Hanson, and all of those guys are question marks. There’s a lot of depth here, but there’s also a chance that Texas is sporting a rotation with way too many 4-5 guys as the season wears on.
  • The closer spot could be an all-or-nothing proposition. With Joe Nathan gone we have Neftali Feliz and Joakim Soria vying for ninth inning duties. Both are not too far-removed from dominant pitching and even less far-removed from Tommy John surgery. If one bounces back to his old form, the Rangers have a closer. If both do, they have a two-headed monster in the late innings which could shorten games.
  • A.J. Pierzynski is in Boston, leaving catching duties to Geovany Soto, who has been a backup the past couple of seasons, and J.P. Arencibia, who was one of the worst offensive players in all of baseball last year. Each is capable of so much more than they’ve done recently. It’ll be interesting to see if either of them can regain lost form.
  • Ron Washington’s contract was just extended through 2015. Seems like a late and somewhat short vote of confidence compared to how these things usually go for guys with a couple of pennants under their belt. If the Rangers, after taking on Fielder and signing Choo, underachieve this season, it wouldn’t be at all shocking to see Wash on the hot seat.

Prediction: That seat shouldn’t be too hot, though. The lineup is stacked. If the rotation doesn’t implode, this is one of the best teams in the AL. First place, AL West.

Whitewash: Rob Manfred says he doesn’t think sign stealing extends beyond the Astros

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Rob Manfred said today that he believes the sign-stealing scandal which has taken over the news in the past week does not extend beyond the Houston Astros. His exact words, via Jeff Passan of ESPN:

“Right now, we are focused on the information that we have with respect to the Astros. I’m not going to speculate on whether other people are going to be involved. We’ll deal with that if it happens, but I’m not going to speculate about that. I have no reason to believe it extends beyond the Astros at this point in time.”

This is simply incredible. As in literally not credible.

It’s not credible because, just last week, in the original story in The Athletic, it was reported that the Astros system was set up by two players, one of whom was “a hitter who was struggling at the plate and had benefited from sign stealing with a previous team, according to club sources . . . they were said to strongly believe that some opposing teams were already up to no good. They wanted to devise their own system in Houston. And they did.”

The very next day Passan reported that Major League Baseball would not limit its focus to the Astros. Rather, the league’s probe was also include members of the 2019 Astros and would extend to other teams as well. Passan specifically mentioned the 2018 Red Sox which, of course, were managed by Alex Cora one year after he left Houston, where he was A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Add into this the Red Sox’ pre-Cora sign-stealing with Apple Watches and widespread, informed speculation on the part of players and people around the game that many teams do this sort of thing, and one can’t reasonably suggest that only the Houston Astros are doing this.

Which, as I noted at the time, made perfect sense. These schemes cannot, logically, operate in isolation because players and coaches change teams constantly. In light of this, players have to know that their sign-stealing would be found out by other teams eventually. They continue to do it, however, because they know other teams do it too. As is the case with pitchers using pine tar or what have you, they don’t rat out the other team so they, themselves, will not be ratted out. It’s a mutually-assured destruction that only exists and only works if, in fact, other teams are also stealing signs.

So why is Major League Baseball content to only hang the Astros here? I can think of two reasons.

One is practical. They had the Astros fall in their lap via former Astro Mike Fiers — obviously not himself concerned with his current team being busted for whatever reason — going on the record with his accusation. That’s not likely to repeat itself across baseball and thus it’d be quite difficult for Major League Baseball to easily conduct a wide investigation. Who is going to talk? How can baseball make them talk? It’d be a pretty big undertaking.

But there’s also the optics. Major League Baseball has had a week to think about the report of the Astros sign-stealing and, I suspect, they’ve realized, like everyone else has realized, that this is a major scandal in the making. Do they really want to spend the entire offseason — and longer, I suspect, if they want a thorough investigation — digging up unflattering news about cheating in the sport? Do they really want to be in the bad news creation business? I doubt they do, so they decided to fence off the Astros, hit them hard with penalties, declare victory and move on.

Which is to say, it’s a whitewash.

It’s something the league has tried to do before. They did it with steroids and it didn’t work particularly well.

In 1998 Mark McGwire, that game’s biggest star at the time, was found to have the PED androstenedione in his locker. It was a big freakin’ deal. Except . . . nothing happened. Major League Baseball planned to “study” the drug but most of the fallout was visited upon the reporter who made it public. It was accompanied by some shameful conduct by both Major League Baseball and the baseball press corps who eagerly went after the messenger rather than cover the story properly.

Four years later Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco went public with their PED use and said drug use was widespread. MLB’s response was slow and, again, sought to isolated the known offenders, singling out Caminiti as a troubled figure — which he was — and Canseco as a kook — which he kind of is — but doing them and the story a disservice all the same.

The league eventually created a rather toothless testing and penalty regime. Congress and outside investigative reporters filled the void created by the league’s inaction, calling hearings and publishing damning stories about how wide PED use was in the game. Eventually Bud Selig commissioned the Mitchell Report. Some ten years after the McGwire incident baseball had at least the beginnings of a sane approach to PEDs and a more effective testing plan, but it was pulled to it kicking and screaming, mostly because doing anything about it was too hard and not very appetizing from a business and P.R. perspective.

And so here we are again. Baseball has a major scandal on its hands. After some initially promising words about how serious it planned to take it, the league seems content to cordon off the known crime scene and refuses to canvass the neighborhood. Sure, if someone gratuitously hands them evidence they’ll look into it, but it sure sounds like Rob Manfred plans to react rather than act here.

That should work. At least until the next time evidence of cheating comes up and they have to start this all over again.